Tomlinson, a former Reader’s Digest editor and CPB Board chair who mounted a behind-the-scenes campaign to balance what he saw as a liberal bias in PBS programming, died May 1 in Winchester, Va., after a long hospitalization.
CPB isn’t covered by the Freedom of Information Act, so nonprofits probing Ken Tomlinson’s period as chairman continue trying to use FOIA to spring CPB-related documents from the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a U.S. panel Tomlinson still chairs. Common Cause, Center for Digital Democracy and Free Press yesterday appealed [PDF] BBG’s rejection of their Nov. 22 FOIA request. Their lawyer, David L. Sobel, requested e-mails, phone logs and other records relating to Tomlinson’s CPB work, particularly communications with the White House. BBG official Martha Diaz-Ortiz told them in January that the documents would be “personal records” beyond FOIA’s reach.
The CPB inspector general’s harshly critical report on Kenneth Tomlinson is not the only scrutiny the former CPB Board chairman is facing. Tomlinson is also under investigation by the State Department Inspector General’s Office for what he’s done as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Meanwhile, two other agencies overseen by the BBG are embroiled in controversies both public and private. The fledgling Arab-language TV channel Alhurra is the subject of three separate government investigations (by the State Department, a House International Relations subcommittee and the Government Accountability Office). And journalists at Voice of America are assailing their BBG-appointed boss for trying to tilt news stories more favorably toward the Bush administration.
The same week former CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson resigned from the CPB Board, public TV stations received a low-key announcement that the Wall Street Journal would soon end production of the conservative news analysis series he aggressively championed. Journal Editorial Report, which Tomlinson saw as an antidote to Bill Moyers’ provocative liberal commentaries on Now, will wrap its final PBS program Dec. 2. The controversy over how it came to PBS — especially as details of the process were revealed last week — demonstrated that when politics enters pubTV editorial decisions, none of the players emerges unscathed. Producers for Dow Jones Television, an affiliate of the Journal, initially didn’t explain why they canned the show, but in an unsigned op-ed Nov.
Inspector General Kenneth A. Konz found fault with much of former Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson’s balance crusade, but his report did validate the creation of CPB’s ombudsmen, the corporation’s stated tool for dealing with audience concerns about program balance and objectivity. While Konz criticized the unilateral manner in which Tomlinson selected veteran journalists Ken Bode and William Schulz, he concluded that “by expanding the public’s ability to have issues of objectivity and balance addressed,” the addition of ombudsmen was “consistent with” CPB’s responsibilities. “The legislative statute requires that public broadcasting be objective and balanced,” Chair Cheryl Halpern told reporters in September. “The ombudsmen were put in place to [help] CPB function within the constraints of the legislation.” But more than six months after CPB engaged Bode and Schulz to assess program balance and objectivity and handle complaints, they have seldom written on these issues in general terms and not once have they responded to audience concerns about the balance and objectivity of specific programs.
When CPB set the ombudsmen to work, Tomlinson told Current they would review news content, but many of their reports have focused on cultural documentaries that aren’t particularly journalistic, such as No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, Richard Rodgers: The Sweetest of Sounds, and The Appalachians. Of the nine reports filed by the part-time monitors since April 26, three praised public TV docs, two were on NPR news reports from Iraq (Bode did note that the reports “gave a nuanced and balanced view”), one lauded Mississippi PTV for covering a high-profile trial, and one was an “ombudsman operating manual.”
The remaining two mentioned audience concerns about balance issues but only one — Bode’s Sept.
What could Congress, CPB or anyone do to prevent the conflicts, failed decisions and other embarrassments bubbling out of the Tomlinson affair? Perhaps the central problem is that the Public Broadcasting Act tells CPB, run by well-connected political appointees, to protect public broadcasting from political influence while also fostering objectivity and balance on the air. While CPB’s inspector general and many others criticize former CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson for violating the first mandate, he and his supporters at the Wall Street Journal still say he was only doing his duty under the other. Though APTS proposes several reforms at CPB, eliminating this central conflict of interest is not one of them. “It’s a fragile compromise that goes back 40 years,” says APTS President John Lawson.
Citing the Freedom of Information Act, three citizen watchdog groups petitioned CPB President Pat Harrison Nov. 21, 2005, to release certain documents mentioned in the CPB inspector general’s Nov. 15 report on the Tomlinson affair. Included are materials given privately by the IG to the CPB Board and members of Congress, minutes of closed and open CPB Board meetings for three years and communications with the White House and with producers of Tucker Carlson Unfiltered and Journal Editorial Report. Several days earlier the groups had requested similar information without invoking FOIA.
Kenneth Y. Tomlinson repeatedly violated provisions of both the Public Broadcasting Act and the corporation’s guidelines for board members’ behavior, according to the report of a six-month internal investigation released Nov. 15 . Tomlinson, who resigned from the CPB Board earlier this month, meddled in programming decisions, injected politics into hiring procedures and ignored contracting guidelines, CPB Inspector General Kenneth A. Konz found. The report spurred another round of press coverage focusing on an institution that, until this spring, flew mostly under the Washington press corps radar. The inspector general’s findings substantiated much of the early press coverage.
Ken Tomlinson, then CPB chairman, proposed a “very generous” severance package to fire President Kathleen Cox, the organization’s inspector general reported Tuesday (PDF, page 21): three times her total annual compensation. (CPB spokesman Michael Levy told Current the amount was $614,000.) Cox’s attorney said in the report she has not yet received a second installment. Headline added to post, 2012